Ever wondered what life is like as a marine biologist? To discover a little more this fascinating field, we spoke to Stefan Andrews – marine biologist, conservationist, teacher, dive instructor, and underwater videographer. With a passion for protecting our oceans, Stefan has been involved with numerous exciting projects all over the world. His latest focus is on the Great Southern Reef – one of Australia’s best kept secrets. Here’s a look at what we spoke about:
You’re a talented underwater videographer – how does this medium help you in conservation projects?
Thanks for the compliment but I’d rather say I’m a determined underwater videographer than a talented one. Everyone sucks when they start off, but it just matters how keen you are to keep doing it and get better!
A big driver behind what I do is the fact that most people will never dive in their life. The reason I am so passionate about underwater videography is to share with non-divers just what’s down there. For most people it’s “out of sight – out of mind” and this medium can help create an emotional response and attachment…so they understand this environment a little better and hopefully care for it.
What is the best part of your job? And the worst?
To define “my job” is a tricky task. I’ve had a range of jobs over the years, many of them not so glamorous. Some of the toughest days were during my honours research in Western Australia. The days were LONG, you were constantly wet, and the water was cold. On surface intervals I was processing samples – my head literally in a pile of seaweed on a rocky deck.
The best part has been visiting some of the most spectacular places on the planet. Some research trips have taken me to incredibly remote, pristine, and unimaginably biodiverse locations. The inspiration and insight you get from being surrounded by these thriving ecosystems is an endless source of motivation behind wanting to understand and look after these places.
You’re currently involved in a fascinating project on the Great Southern Reef – can you tell us a little about this campaign?
My honours research project supervisors in Perth had published a research paper highlighting that the kelp forests of southern Australia are understudied, overlooked and overshadowed by the Great Barrier Reef. The paper was the first to propose the “Great Southern Reef” as a much needed identity for these highly biodiverse, productive, and valuable systems.
Two years ago we received some funding from National Geographic to help raise the public profile of these reefs. The idea was to showcase the importance and interconnectedness of the Great Southern Reef, by sharing stories of people with a personal connection to these ecosystems. We also wanted to share the indigenous connection to this coast and their philosophy of being stewards of the local environment and caring for this country which provides so much for us.
What are the threats to the Great Southern Reef?
Climate change is impacting marine ecosystems worldwide in a big way. We all know how the Great Barrier Reef is affected; but sadly, the Great Southern Reef is also under threat and is receiving far less attention. ‘Tropicalisation’ of these temperate reefs is a huge issue – meaning tropical reef fish are moving further south and overgrazing on important seaweeds, and tropical algae are invading areas they shouldn’t really exist in. On top of this, marine heat waves have caused widespread die offs of kelp forests. The most alarming example is the giant kelp in Tasmania – 95% of these kelp forests have been wiped out in recent years due to climate change.
Another threat is the ongoing proposition of oil drilling The Great Australian Bight. Recently we saw oil giant Equinor pull out of their plans to drill. Public outcry was strong, and we saw people band together right across the Great Southern Reef. And that is what the whole concept of the project is all about – uniting people over this shared resource.
Why is it important to protect the Great Southern Reef?
It’s important to understand that this reef system is worth at least $10 BILLION annually to the Australian economy. For example, the rock lobster and abalone industries combined are worth $950 million dollars per year. We have tourists come from all over the world to see our sea dragons, sea lions, cephalopods and sharks. The seaweed forests also absorb huge amounts of Carbon out of the atmosphere. We are only just beginning to understand how important these reefs really are. Scientists estimate there are tens of thousands of species yet to be described in these highly understudied waters!
Do you have any tips for people to help protect the ocean in their everyday life?
Simple things like keep cups, reusable bags, and minimising single use plastics are always great places to start. But on top of that, if you see some rubbish on the ground… just pick it up – and be proud of where you live. Remember you vote with your money, so spend wisely. Eat locally caught, sustainable seafood. Do your own research – there are a lot of great apps out there which help you work out what is worth avoiding. And importantly, if you see something that doesn’t look right, stand up for what you believe in and contact your local government representative.
What advice do you have for people thinking about pursuing a career in marine biology or conservation?
I’ve met countless people over the years that have told me “oh, I wanted to be a marine biologist”. Most of them were talked out of it because there would be “no jobs” or it didn’t pay much. The reality is studying marine biology is just a foundation for many possible careers.
My best advice is not to let other people talk you out of it. I’m not saying that jobs will come easy, but the more determined you are, the more likely you will find yourself doing something incredibly valuable and meaningful. You won’t regret it.